There is a court case currently happening which may see senior political journalists from the Herald Sun, Michael Harvey and Gerard McManus, jailed for contempt of court.
Not surprisingly, most journalists consider the right to refuse to reveal a source as a fundamental component of a free press and freedom of speech. I have to say that my experience has made me less convinced about this. I agree there is a valid principle involved, but I am not so sure it should be incontrovertible.
I have no doubt that writers sometimes use anonymous ‘sources’ to make up or embellish things that fits the story they want (or have been told) to write. Less seriously, anonymous sources can be a shield for lazy reporting that gives unwarranted prominence to things which are little more than gossip, without taking the trouble to verify its accuracy.
However, that concern is more to do with whether a story is justified or facts are properly checked, rather than whether a source should be publicly revealed. The story in question before the Court does not fit into this category, as there is no dispute that the documents that the journalists quoted from were genuine, nor that the facts revealed were of genuine public interest and concern.
The journalists’ report quoted leaked documents which showed that the Howard Government planned to ignore almost all of the recommendations for improvements contained in a major review of veteran pensions and entitlements. The Government was consequently shamed into adopting many more of the recommendations, and it is fair to say that the report played a key role in making this happen.
The court case which has led to these journalists facing the threat of jail does not involve a matter of major public safety or national security. It is a legal witch hunt initiated by the federal government (and paid for by the taxpayer) to try to punish the whistleblower who is alleged to have leaked the documents.
In my view, whether or not a journalist should be required to reveal a source really boils down to how serious the matter is, and the competing public interest obligations. Where there are genuine matters of public safety or covering up of serious criminal behaviour involved, I think there is a case for journalists to be required to provide details, in the same way as I believe a priest or a doctor should be obliged to provide answers to questions from a Court in some circumstances.
None of that remotely applies in this case. The Government’s pursuit of this matter is about entrenching their culture of intimidation in the public service and further increasing the effectiveness of their Thought Police approach to controlling information. That journalists (or anyone else) should be threatened with jail just because they won’t cooperate with a whistleblower witch hunt is outrageous.
Some people may see it as ironic that I would defend Harvey and McManus in regard to receiving leaked information, as they were key writers of the front page story in the Herald Sun in December 2003 which contained leaked allegations about an argument I had with Liberal Senator Jeannie Ferris. That story was damaging to the Democrats and very hurtful for my family, (as the person who composed and planted the allegations knew it would be), but I can’t really blame the journalists for that. Although the story contained some exaggerations, they basically just reported the allegations they were given, which were framed specifically so it would cause damage when leaked (although the Herald Sun’s huge headline – “Mauled by a Wild MP” – was totally over the top, but you can’t blame journos for that).
Indeed, because I chose to handle the issue by just giving an unqualified apology for causing offence, rather than put my side of the story or raise counter-allegations, I didn’t really deal with the journalists about the story at all. It wasn’t until many months later, when Harvey and McManus approached me suggesting a meeting to “clear the air”, that it registered with me who it was that had written that story. I actually wasn’t sure what they were referring to until we met and they started talking about their coverage of the incident. Whilst the consequential media coverage over the following weeks and months gave me a major, first hand lesson in why politicians usually don’t provide unqualified apologies, I don’t blame Harvey or McManus for writing that initial story – it was my own foolishness, which others decided to make use of, which enabled that to happen.
Nor should these two people be threatened with jail as a consequence of the Government’s desire to intimidate public servants. I’m not sure if it would be possible to frame a law that could adequately balance the competing principles of protecting sources versus authority of the Courts, but basic common sense makes it obvious that this specific situation is unjust, unreasonable and unfair.